Basketball fans caught up in March Madness this past month know as well as anyone that watching television, whether alone at home or in a crowded bar, is almost never a passive pursuit.
The fact that there may not be anyone within earshot rarely stops viewers from leaping off the couch, berating the television set or declaring what a player, character or screenwriter should have done differently.
That concept drove Takoma Park entrepreneur Richard Fawal to conceive WatchParty, a Web site with chat rooms for fans of a particular television program to convene as the show happens. They can swap 140-character reactions, create opinion polls and rate their satisfaction with the day’s episode.
WatchParty sits at the nexus of several emerging technology trends. The line between television and the Internet has begun to blur as providers stream shows online. Social media have also become communication channels for millions, particularly as smartphones untether people from desktop computers.
The big question is what new company will emerge to capitalize on these developments.
“When you come up with one of these ideas, you know the way it starts is not how it ends up,” said co-founder Jake Kouns. “You try to figure out what do people want, what do we want, and how do you match the technology.”
The idea for WatchParty struck Fawal last March while watching an episode of the science mystery show “MythBusters” on the Discovery Channel. A physicist by training, Fawal took issue with the setup to one of the program’s experiments.
In the age of social media, in which the inclination to share (and at times over-share) can be indulged, Fawal didn’t have to keep his thoughts to himself. He broadcast his complaints on Twitter, but found none of his followers was tuned in at the time.
“The tools that are available for socializing online around television, they are all tools that are built for other types of engagement that television fans have adapted to work for television, but none of them are really, really good at it,” he said.
Nevertheless, WatchParty was built to be compatible with Facebook and Twitter because both networks already count millions of users. Attracting people to yet another network has proven difficult, the founders said.
For that reason, Fawal and Kouns have adjusted the company’s business model several times in the last year. The duo initially planned to charge users to host private watch parties with 15 friends, but have found only moderate interest to date.
Their latest pursuit would turn WatchParty into a platform that third parties can host on their own Web pages. Washingtonpost.com, for example, could offer a WatchParty during the Oscars or the State of the Union Address, Fawal said.
“We are not believers in the [idea that] if we get a ton of users we’ll find a way to monetize it later,” Fawal said. “We have to turn it into a business. So that’s where we are now. We’re turning a great idea that people love into a business.”
The founders are now on the hunt for venture capital after raising more than $100,000 from friends and family. They’re also looking for new ways to attract and retain users.
“I sit down regularly and say, ‘What are the things that could kill us in three months?’ Fawal said. “Then I figure out how to not let those things happen.”